In the list below I have excluded Shri K.L. Saigal, who is considered by many of these greats as their guru. I plan to write about Saigal at a later stage.
- Shri Manna Dey
- Shri Mohammad Rafi/Shri Kishore Kumar (tied second)
- Shri Hemant Kumar
- Shri Mahendar Kapoor
- Shri Mukesh
- Shri Talat Mahmood
Even though Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar are tied at two, Rafi was the only other serious contender for the top slot. While Kishore outshines Rafi in some departments, the reason Kishore couldn't be a strong contender for the top slot is because of his limitations in semi-classical renditions. Now, if the exceptionally gifted Kishore had been classically trained, there would be no discussions on who is the best. Rafi and Kishore had better voice texture than Manna Dey. However, Manna Dey leaves everybody far behind when it comes to his classical/semi-classical songs. No one, not even Rafi comes close.
Various music directors have maintained that while Manna Dey could sing any of the songs of his contemporaries listed above, the reverse was not true. If you listen to his songs and those of his contemporaries, this becomes very clear. Both Rafi and Manna Dey were always very respectful of each other and when asked as to who was the better singer amongst the two, each maintained that the other was better. Rafi is known to have said to people "You listen to my songs. I listen to Manna Dey's songs". Also, about Manna Dey's "Poocho Na Kaise Maine Rein Bitayi", Rafi said something along the lines ... "Yes I did sing the song 'Man Tadpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj', but I could not have sung this song".
Manna Dey did not share the same rapport with Kishore Kumar. I have heard a story that when Manna Dey was asked to sing "Ek Chatur Naar Karke Singaar" and he found out that in the movie he was to lose that competition (jugalbandi) to Kishore, he refused to sing the song. He is reported to have said that since he can beat him, he won't do it. It was the film's actor (co-producer) Mehmood who convinced him to sing the song. Mehmood is known to have reasoned that it was his movie and he was losing too, but it was just a movie. Mehmood shared with Manna Dey most peoples view that no one but him could do justice to this song. It took some convincing, but Manna Dey finally sang the song and the rest is history. The song turned out to be a belter - the combo of Manna Dey, Kishore and one of the greatest music directors ever, R.D. Burman created magic. More recently however, Manna Dey has been generous in his praise for Kishore and has even said "He had the best voice quality (galla) of all time".
Amongst the factors mentioned in my post titled "Rating criteria to compare Hindi film singers", Manna Dey easily sings the most difficult songs amongst all of the other artists. Songs like "Laaga Chunri Mein Daag", "Lapak Jhapak Tu Aa Re", "Ketaki Gulaab Juhi", "Tere Naina Talaash Karen", "Aayo Kahan Se Ghanshyam", "Gori Tori Paijaniya", "Jhanak jhanak Tori Baaje Payaliya", "Phoolgendwa Na Maaro", "Chham Chham Baje Re Payaliya", etc. are very difficult songs to sing. These songs very well illustrate the range of this legend. As far as emotions are concerned; I think Manna Dey, Rafi and Kishore were pretty much at the same level. However, one song that Manna Dey sang which I don't believe any other singer could have done justice too even in the emotions department was "Poocho Na Kaise Maine Rein Bitayi". It's not just because this is a hard song to sing. It is because the way he sang it was so heart-felt. This song also illustrates his understanding of the meaning of the song, it's gist and poetry - and the beauty with which he expresses it. His expression is highlighted in every song and to name just a couple; the way he said the word "bhagwaan" in the song "Kasme Waade Pyaar Wafaa" or the way he ended the word "RooTHo" the second time he said the line "Moh Se Na RooTHo" in "Aayo Kahan Se Ghanshyam" (I think he did this in a different, possibly live verion), etc. Manna Dey might have learnt the language to acquire the great pronunciation that he had, considering that it is very easy to be unclear in the type of songs he sang. No need to talk about the flow and timing for this great man; be it "Aye Mere Pyare Watan", "Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke Chalo", "Aao Twist Karen", "Chalat Musafir Moh Liyo Re", "Sur Na Saje", "Tu Pyaar Ka Saagar Hai", "Upar Gagan Vishal", "Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai", "Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli", "Aye Meri Zohra Jabeen", "Tu Chuppi Hai Kahan", "Yaari Hai Iman Mera", "Bhor Aayee Gaya Andhiyaara", "Hasne Ki Chah Ne Itna Mujhe Rulaya Hai", "Bhay Bhanjana Bandana Sun Hamari", "Yeh Raat Bheegi Bheegi", "Chunri Sambhal Gori", "Jhoomta Mausam Mast Mahina", etc. he always got it right. These songs are from different genres with different characteristics - romantic melodies, swing/dance, qawwalee, devotional songs, patriotic numbers, etc.
The only one factor not in favor of Manna Dey is the perception that his voice did not suit every actor of his time. This is where both Rafi and Kishore score over him. It is not that he did not have good voice quality, it just did not suit actors of his time. This was accentuated as the more accomplished Manna Dey was singing mature songs very early in his career, before Rafi and Kishore were in the picture. This apart Manna Dey was in a different league altogether, my numero uno.
Look out for other artists in upcoming posts ...
[Update - Addressed these artists as Shri in the first mention of their names in the post.]
[Update - Added a few more songs of Manna Dey to the post.]